Written by:
Halima Begum

Bittersweet anniversary

Read time:
5 minutes

Bittersweet anniversary

Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush berthing at Tilbury Docks, yet the celebrations will be tinged with sadness given the ongoing Windrush scandal and the clamour of the current immigration debate. We need substantive change rather than symbolic gestures, writes Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede Trust. 

The majority of the HMT Empire Windrush’s 1,027 passengers and two stowaways – who would soon be defined as de facto British citizens when the British Nationality Act 1948 passed its third reading just five weeks after their arrival – made the journey from Jamaica to pursue the promise of a new life in a country widely perceived as a benevolent motherland.  

The arrival of Empire Windrush marks a symbolic moment in British history and the formation of our multicultural identity. Newsreels from the day show the passengers being embraced as ‘Sons of Empire’. Yet having accepted the offer to support the UK’s post-war rebuilding effort, they soon faced a longer and more arduous journey. 

The process of claiming the status, rights and place in society that were legitimately theirs was quickly defined by racism and outright hostility. The tone was set just two days after the Empire Windrush dropped anchor, when Prime Minister Clement Attlee was lobbied by a group of 11 Labour MPs calling for a halt to the ‘influx of coloured people’. Attlee responded: ‘It would be a great mistake to take the emigration of this Jamaican party to the United Kingdom too seriously.’ 

Such resonances linger. In the subsequent Windrush scandal that evolved from Theresa May’s hostile environment policies, Windrush arrivals and their descendants have wrongfully been stripped of their British nationality and denied the right to work, housing, healthcare and social security. So far at least 23 people are believed to have lost their lives as a result, and the government continues to retreat from fulfilling the obligations it itself identified as necessary to rectify those wrongs that were inflicted. 

‘Substantive support like compensation payments to the victims remains stalled’


While the government has subsidised statues in symbolic gestures of gratitude to a community and a generation, substantive support like compensation payments to the victims remains stalled. Elsewhere, public funding for civil society organisations working to make good the damage caused by the scandal has been revoked, whether or not on the basis that they have dared challenge these same hostile environment policies, or the prejudice and disregard to which the victims have been subjected. 

Tellingly, in March, the Civicus Monitor, which tracks civil liberties in 167 countries, downgraded the UK on its international freedoms index citing the ‘increasingly authoritarian’ environment in which such organisations are working. 

The Windrush scandal embodies the racialised prejudice implicit in the ongoing rhetoric around hostile environment policies. While there may be no explicit mention of race in parliamentary debates around issues such as the small boats crossing from Calais, the ‘dangerous’ and ‘unwelcome’ migrant trope can often feel like a thinly disguised proxy that instils a sense of vulnerability across all our minority ethnic communities and plays to harmful stereotypes that should have disappeared decades ago. 

Amid the clamour of the current immigration debate, this anniversary therefore feels like an even more poignant moment to celebrate the migrants and refugees who have become part of the very fabric of British society. It is an opportunity to express our thanks for their contributions to institutions like the NHS and to recognise in their struggles and resilience, their remarkable role in defining what it means to be British in 2023. 


‘Acknowledging this 75th anniversary perhaps isn’t so much about appreciating history as embracing its lessons’

They include members of my own family from rural Bangladesh. This month I will be pausing to think of my grandfather and parents, and their own sea passage to these shores. My grandfather’s service to Britain through World War II was marked by his abiding love and respect for this country, and the deep-seated pride in his citizenship that he and my parents felt. 

He explained his ostensibly contradictory commitment to fighting for Bangladesh’s nation status and independence – whether from Britain, India or Pakistan – as a consequence of his inalienable right to freedom and dignity emanating from what he called ‘the British part of my soul’. That same spirit imbued my resistance to the National Front members who threw rocks at our home on East London’s Brick Lane when I was a child in the 1980s. 

Acknowledging this 75th anniversary perhaps isn’t so much about appreciating history as embracing its lessons – specifically that migrants have done so much to define Britain in so many positive ways. It also means overcoming the hostility directed at the latest generation of migrants seeking to make Britain ‘home’ and contribute to our country’s future. 

Until that happens, for me the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury will inevitably be tinged with sadness rather than being a truly unbridled celebration of a long journey so meaningfully travelled. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

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